How Plant-based Diets Can Reverse Serious Illnesses

Written by Shama Nimkar on Wed, 16 November 2022

Key Highlights

  • Lifestyle changes with a plant-based diet: Dr. Ornish while talking about the transformative power of lifestyle medicine, threw light on how following a plant-based diet has the potential to reverse even the most serious of illnesses.
  • Exploring the connection between plant-based diets & genes: How pairing a plant-based diet with mere meditation can change your gene expression.
  • How a plant-based diet over meat-based diets can help heart health: Dr. Ornish cited several studies to establish the benefits of a plant-based diet for good heart health.
  • Plant-based nutrition for Alzheimer's: Dr. Ornish explains the impact that a plant-based diet can have on Alzheimer's, and how following a plant-based lifestyle can reduce the risks of developing this disease.
  • The Cost Factor: Meat production is not only exploitative of natural but also financial resources. Giving readers more reasons to pursue plant-based nutrition, Dr. Ornish digs deeper into this topic.
  • Community and Belonging: You'll realize the relevance of good mental health that hails from a feeling of belonging and how this in turn catalyzes your journey to recovery. Dr. Ornish used a case study on community and cancer patients to make understanding this easier.

A simple change in your lifestyle can make a big difference to your health, be it following a healthy diet or choosing to exercise daily.

Emphasizing the need for embracing meaningful changes for better health, Dr. Dean Ornish (the name behind the widely-acclaimed Ornish diet), M.D, founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCSF, explained why it is important for people to take a step towards plant-based nutrition at the Asian Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference.

How to combine simple lifestyle changes with a plant-based diet

Often referred to as the father of Lifestyle Medicine, Dr. Ornish while talking about the transformative power of lifestyle medicine, threw light on how following a plant-based diet has the potential to reverse even the most serious of illnesses. "When paired with physical activity and meditation, a plant-based lifestyle can reverse a wide variety of chronic diseases, everything from coronary heart disease to early stage prostate cancer, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, various autoimmune diseases, obesity and so on. In fact, plant-based nutrition is also said to boost your immunity and reduce your chances of catching Covid-19," Dr. Ornish explained.

On a quest to fight traumatizing diseases such as Alzheimer's and Cancer, Dr. Ornish has in the past led various successful medical trials and went on to launch the 'Undo It With Ornish' program that promotes healing through a fourfold approach - therapy, meditation, physical activity/exercise and plant-based nutrition. Advocating this treatment further, he released a book on the same, co-authored by his wife, Anne Ornish, titled 'UnDo It With Ornish.'

While different diseases require treatments and cures, Dr. Ornish believes that a healthy lifestyle sets the base for keeping any form of ailments at bay. Elaborating on the same, he said, "Diseases aren't so different and share many of the same underlying biological mechanisms. These include things like chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, changes in the microbiome, immune function, etc. Each of these are directly influenced by what we eat, how we respond to stress, how much exercise we get, and how much love and support we have. Again, eat well, move more, stress less, and love more."

Plant-based diets and genes: what's the connection?

Now, it is a well-known fact that certain conditions can be passed on to the next generation through genes, but what's lesser known is that these genetic conditions can be reversed with the help of just one simple change - a plant-based lifestyle. "If your mother, father, sister, brothers, and aunts and uncles all died early from heart disease, it doesn't mean that you need to. It just means that you need to probably make bigger changes to keep that from happening," pointed Dr. Ornish.

These changes could prove to be a game changer for your family's health history. You'd be surprised to know that pairing a plant-based diet with mere meditation can change your gene expression. Sample this. A study conducted at Harvard observed three groups - non-meditators, people who meditated for eight weeks, and long-term meditators. It was revealed that the longer a person meditates, the more changes you get to see in their gene expressions. "Almost 300 genes were changed again in just as little as eight weeks," he says.

This way, you can curb the possibility of suffering heart conditions, cancer, diabetes, or other diseases that can be genetically passed on and further prevent your future generations from being at risk.

How a plant-based diet over meat-based diets can help heart health

Giving up on meat is not an easy task, especially for those who've grown up following a predominantly non-vegetarian diet, but it must be realized that the alternative path is for the better. The case studies listed below will hopefully provide readers with enough reason and data to consider giving plant-based living a chance.

Case Study 1

Dr. Ornish started by introducing people to the benefits of the Ornish diet, a part of his 'UnDo It With Ornish' program. This diet is plant-based and composed of whole foods, legumes, fruits, and veggies. He successfully led a trial in 1977 when he took 10 people with severe heart conditions to a hotel and asked them to follow his diet for a month. It was observed that 8 out of ten patients showed improved blood circulation to the heart.

Case Study 2

The second case study in focus is that of the Lifestyle Heart Trial, conducted by the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute founded by Dr. Ornish when he went on to become a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco. "The irony here was that we were using these high- tech expensive state-of-the-art scientific measures to prove how powerful these low-tech, low cost and often ancient interventions can be," he laughed.

In this trial, men and women with severe heart diseases were randomly divided into two groups where the first group was asked to follow the Ornish diet while the other wasn't. In the beginning, it was found that the amount of blockage in the heart was comparable in both groups. However, a year later, the picture looked different. The group following the Ornish diet showed improved heart conditions while the individuals belonging to the other group were facing troubles due to increased blockage in the heart.

It was believed that the best way to treat severe heart conditions was to slow down the rate at which they got worse. It was this study that instilled a ray of hope among patients. "For the first time, it was proven that one didn't have to die a slow death while the situation got worse, instead they could get better and better," says Dr. Ornish. These findings were published in The Lancet and the five-year findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"We also did cardiac PET scans to measure blood flow, the state-of-the-art measure of blood flow. And there was a 400% improvement in blood flow to the heart in these patients and their arteries were less clogged as compared to the control group after five years," he adds.

Case Study 3

This is a case study that draws attention to the benefits of following a plant-based diet for cancer patients. The same lifestyle which has proven to be effective among heart patients was tested out on cancer patients and the results were unbelievable. "We aimed to reverse the progression of men with early-stage prostate cancer. As usual, we divided the patients into two groups where one group ate well, exercised, and meditated while the other wasn't doing anything. This was so we could then look at the effects of lifestyle changes alone, he said.

It was found out that the PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) levels, a marker for prostate cancer, went up or got worse for those that continued to lead a stagnant lifestyle but went down or got better in a year. "Those differences were highly significant and they occurred in direct proportion to the degree of lifestyle changes we found in our earlier studies," he stated.

How a plant-based Asian diet can help in battling Alzheimer's

While the world has been busy tackling Covid-19, there is another pandemic that

has long been a cause of distress, not only for patients but also for their families. The disease in focus is Alzheimer's and there is no cure for it. However, Dr. Dean Ornish's findings surface as a ray of hope for doctors as well as patients. With several studies to back his theory, Dr. Ornish strongly believes that a plant-based lifestyle can reduce the risk of this life-threatening disease.

"I think we're at a place with Alzheimer's disease, very similar to where we were with heart disease four decades ago." It took a while to come up with treatments for heart diseases and with all the scientific advancement in the medical industry, experts are leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit of finding a cure for Alzheimer's.

"When you lose your memory, you lose everything. So, people are more afraid of Alzheimer's than any other diagnosis," revealed Dr. Ornish. According to him, taking an approach similar to that of treating heart ailments might be effective in slowing down Alzheimer's. "The reason why I think what's good for your heart is good for your brain is that a lot of these same mechanisms that affect the heart can also affect a third of Alzheimer's. They are due to modifiable risk factors which are the same ones as linked with heart disease, low education, high blood pressure, diabetes, inactivity, smoking, depression, and so on," he adds.

He stresses the importance of following an Asian diet in tackling Alzheimer's. "The Asian diet is the reason why heart disease and diabetes and prostate and breast and colon cancer and so on, and obesity were so low in Asia 50 or 60 years ago. It's one of the healthiest ways to eat."

An Asian diet is rich in greens and low in meat and dairy products. "I urge people to not copy the West in everything, especially our eating habits," he laughs. The Ornish diet too is rich in greens and he highly recommends it for Alzheimer's patients. It aids in blood circulation to the brain and retaining your memory.

How plant-based diets can bring down medical costs for chronic diseases

"Besides health, another deciding factor in choosing a plant-based diet is the cost incurred for the treatment of chronic diseases. 86% of the $3.8 trillion in healthcare costs are due to chronic diseases that can often be prevented or even reversed by making lifestyle changes at a fraction of the costs," pointed out Dr. Ornish.

To elaborate upon this further, he added, "Turns out that it takes 14 times more resources to make a pound of meat-based protein than plant-based protein. Even if everyone opts for a plant-based diet, there'll be enough food to feed everyone. No one needs to go hungry."

"Studies have proven that animal rearing, meat production along with the dairy industry all take a serious toll on the environment and its resources. The transportation of cattle alone requires a substantial amount of money. Hence, by following a plant-based lifestyle, you're not only benefiting yourself but also the environment; curbing the ongoing crisis and paving the path for a better future. We need to use our resources judiciously so that future generations don't have to suffer. What is also important is nurturing a feeling of compassion towards animals," he went on to explain.

Community - A Feeling of Belonging and Heart Health

Dr. Ornish strongly advocates love, support, and care as driving factors in preventing or curing chronic diseases, besides medical treatment. "I truly believe in lifestyle medicine; a form of medicine that promotes healthy changes in lifestyle. However, there's a reason I refer to my work as the conspiracy of love. Letting people know that you care and taking a few extra minutes to ask them about their families can make a powerful difference in their progress. This is what my program aims at, combining plant-based nutrition with warmth and support," he adds.

Several studies elaborate on how support and belonging can catalyze the process of recovery from chronic diseases. Several patients react better to their treatments when they visit support groups and interact with individuals who can relate to their situation and empathize with them Several studies that elaborate on how support and belonging can catalyze the process of recovery from chronic diseases. Several patients react better to their treatments when they visit support groups and interact with individuals who can relate to their situation and empathize with them as a species."

To illustrate his point, Dr. Ornish cited a case study conducted by David Spiegel that looked at women who had metastatic breast cancer. They underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. But in addition, one group of women met together for 90 minutes once a week and were encouraged to talk openly about their situation. It was found out that these women lived longer than other patients and this proves testimony to the belief that mental health plays a vital role in healing any form of ailment.

Following a plant-based diet is great but these external factors enhance the impact of that healthy diet in ways you can't imagine.


Drawing reference from the above observations, Dr. Ornish concluded, "When you grow up in a family with two or three generations of people or an extended family, they know you. They know you. They don't just know your Facebook profile but also know your dark side. They know where you messed up. They know that time you got busted for drugs or you were suicidal or whatever it was. And you know that they know. And they know that you know that they know. And there's something primal about feeling fully seen. It's that peace of mind combined with healthy living that makes all the difference."

Read more on how plant-based diets can help you live a healthier life.

Dean Ornish, MD Dean Ornish, M.D., is the founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCSF. He received his medical training from the Baylor College of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts General Hospital. For over 40 years, he has directed clinical research demonstrating for the first time that comprehensive lifestyle changes may begin to reverse even severe coronary heart disease and also early-stage prostate cancer. The 'Ornish Diet' has been rated "#1 for Heart Health" by a panel of experts at U.S. News & World Report for ten years from 2011-to 2021.


Shama Nimkar

Shama Nimkar is a Lifestyle Journalist, Content Writer and a Publishing House Copy editor, and has a degree in Arts & Lifestyle Journalism from the University of the Arts London. With several articles published across renowned platforms in India and in the UK, Shama is now based out of Canada, and is pursuing higher studies in Digital Marketing. 

Did you like our Article?





Not Sure




Leave a Comment